The ESL Chicken Dance

Teaching English to non-English speakers is like playing a game (think: Pictionary)– especially when there are no dictionaries involved. Miming, drawings, and frustrated gesturing will hopefully yield the intended word or expression… This isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, unfortunately– especially when people from two different countries (or even those from [dissimilar] cultures) are involved. This gesticulation is nothing new for me– I’ve been doing it nearly every day for almost two years now.

I’ll give you an example: my ex, when he first arrived to Thailand, wanted to order some food at a food stall. Having only just arrived the day before, he couldn’t speak any Thai and therefore didn’t know how to order food (or even what dishes were available). He wanted something with chicken. Well, he ended up dancing around the stall, clucking, and with his hands tucked beneath his armpits, he flapped his elbows up in down in a way that resembled the grotesque humanoid caricature of a chicken. After a while, the woman caught on and made him some random dish with chicken.

Anyway, every now and then I come across a picture or a gesture that throws me for a loop. This apotheosizes the communication routine:

I asked my students to write a sentence on the board describing what they would do during Chuseok. All was well and good until the last student was summoned to the whiteboard. She was having a hard time writing out her Chuseok plans. I asked her what she wanted to write– unfortunately, she only knew the Korean words and couldn’t describe her plans using the English that she did know. So I asked her if she could draw it so that I could maybe help her construct a sentence. This is what she drew:

A student’s drawing of an ancestral tomb and prostration

I had absolutely no idea what was going on in that picture. No. Idea. None. Okay… so after a while, I realized that the thing on the left was a ghost floating above something and that the drawing on the right was merely an extension of that… a grave (but really, a tomb). The student, Chris, then dropped to her knees and began to prostrate herself in front of the classroom (this was the second half of what she wanted translated). After about 7 minutes of drawing and acting, I was able to come up with what she wanted to write:

“For Chuseok I will go to my family’s ancestral tomb and we will bow* before it.”

She wrote what I told her to write and once she realized that she had written the word “bow,” she began to laugh and say, “No, no teacher, not this….” (gesturing to one of her classmate’s hair bows) “…this” (falling back on her knees in faux-prostation).

It took a while longer to explain the differences in words and their respective sounds.

Yeah, so, uh.. welcome to a day in the life of an ever-gesticulating ESL teacher.  Cheers!

* “prostate ourselves” is much closer to what she wanted, but she is 10. I thought “bow” was more age appropriate.


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